Five of the six councilors for the regional governing body voted in favor of releasing funds that will allow the project to move forward, reviving efforts to build a new Interstate 5 bridge following the 2014 failure of the Columbia River Crossing project.
Even as project managers characterized the vote as a formality, several councilors expressed hesitation about allowing the project to move forward without more information about the capacity of the proposed bridge or what they characterized as adequate attention to climate and equity issues.
Nonetheless, the elected council members said they felt the pressure to approve the funds in order to conduct more research on the proposed bridge, and to focus on other regional transportation projects.
The council also voted to adopt a “Values, Outcomes and Actions” motion, which lays out specific goals that the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project must follow to win Metro’s support for future funding and approvals. That document was shaped in part by demands from climate activists and land use planning groups.
They include that the Interstate Bridge project team must conduct an analysis of how to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled through measures like rush-hour tolling and high-capacity transit. And it must also conduct a health impact analysis of air quality of the corridor between downtown Portland and Vancouver.
It must also conduct an “investment-grade” traffic analysis ahead of any decisions about the bridge design, which would allow for a clearer sense of how big the bridge should be.
Council President Lynn Peterson said she hopes that the “values” statement would help set a clear direction for the Interstate Bridge project team.
“In order for us to see a project in the end that reflects back on our values, we need to be very articulate and clear about that,” she said.
Peterson also said she thinks there’s more alignment about the vision for the bridge between various agencies involved in the project — such as the cities of Portland and Vancouver, TriMet and the Port of Portland — than there had been in the past.
Greg Johnson and Ray Mabey, administrators of the committee overseeing the Interstate Bridge project, told council members they were committed to climate and equity goals, and that they have already started looking into some of Metro’s concerns, but said they are also trying to work with eight different agencies from both Oregon and Washington on the project.
Interstate Bridge Project leaders have said they hope to present a modified design option to the Metro Council and other partner agencies by June. Some councilors balked at the rapid pace at which the project was moving, but Johnson said failing to meet that timeline could jeopardize federal funding for the project.
“I have been given explicit instructions that we cannot miss this window for funding,” Johnson said. “If this presents a scheduling problem, that’s when we’re going to have to come back to you guys.”
Mary Nolan, the only councilor to vote against allocating the $36 million, asked Johnson directly if he would commit to conducting studies and looking at alternatives that meet the council’s expectations.
Johnson initially hesitated to make the commitment.
“We are once again trying to find what is the best solution to create a multi-modal corridor to convert single occupancy trips into transit, bike, walk and roller trips,” he said. “Those are the things we are looking at to make this footprint as small as possible. But if you’re asking us to go out and build something that is going to fail, that is not a success story for anyone trying to build any project.”
Nolan said they took issue with that characterization.
“I’m not even asking you to do a less significant project,” Nolan said. “I’m asking you to commit to including modifications that dramatically switch the modal split, reduce greenhouse gases. I’m asking whether, essentially, everything we’ve done today has struck a chord with you.”
The votes were accompanied by hours of public testimony, mostly from people who were against funding the project, or hesitant to do so without first considering other alternatives.
Aaron Brown, of the climate activist group No More Freeways, said he was heartened by councilors’ agreement to hold ODOT and the Interstate Bridge project group to account. But he also urged them not to act without first understanding the true needs for a new bridge.
“Measure twice, cut once,” he said, referring to the failed 2014 iteration of the Interstate Bridge project. “You don’t have to start the whole project again if you take the extra step to verify the details.”
Benjamin Fryback, an Oregon State University student, used his own experiences to illustrate the need for more investment in public transit. The day before, he said, he tried to take the Amtrak train from Corvallis to Portland for a climate protest. On the trips both there and back, he was plagued by train delays, the last of which brought him back to the station too late to catch a connecting bus home.
“This $35 million, if invested differently, could go to so many other things,” he said. “It could ensure that people like me don’t get stuck”
The previous day, more than a dozen students and other supporters of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-driven effort to fight climate change, protested the Interstate Bridge expansion outside Metro’s offices.
One of those students, Ukiah Halloran-Steiner, sent in an audio recording of her testimony because she was in school during the meeting.
“No many how many alternative modes of transportation they provide, if they add lanes there will be more cars,” Halloran-Steiner said. “This project is not sustainable. I’m 16 years old. My future is in your hands.”
A few speakers also supported funding the project, including a coalition of more than 20 Portland-area business associations, chambers of commerce and land development companies such as the Portland Business Alliance, the Greater Vancouver and Washington County chambers of commerce and Travel Portland.